Even by the heavily multicultural standards of New York City, Jackson Heights, a neighborhood in the northwest part of Queens, boasts a truly remarkable degree of ethnic diversity. Reportedly, 167 languages are spoken there, though only a few of them are heard and subtitled in Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary, In Jackson Heights. This is another of Wiseman’s occasional docs focusing on a location rather than an institution—previous examples include Belfast, Maine (1999), Aspen (1991), and Central Park (1990)—and there’s little doubt that he was drawn to the neighborhood precisely because it offers such a wealth of disparate nationalities, cultures, and viewpoints. Anyone familiar with the director’s working method (strictly observational, with no voice-over or direct-to-camera interviews) will know what to expect, but this particular parade of context-free anecdotes covers so much different ground that it may be hard for those who’ve never been there to believe that they all take place in the same few blocks.
Wiseman does use a bit of a structuring device, repeatedly returning to New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm, who’s first seen speaking at the Queens Pride parade (which he founded in 1993). Dromm is openly gay, and a strong voice for the LBGTQ community, but he also makes a point of celebrating all the other unique voices in the area—which gets him in trouble when he starts listing them, as he realizes that he’s inevitably going to offend some group by inadvertent omission. Wiseman works hard to avoid that same fate, checking in with Latino small-business owners struggling to compete with the big boxes; elderly women proclaiming their loneliness at a senior center; halal workers slaughtering chickens for local restaurants (warning: unsimulated animal death); ecstatic Colombian soccer fans nearly rioting in the streets after a victory; and, in by far the funniest sequence, a motley group of prospective cabbies being taught New York geography by a fantastic teacher, who really deserves an entire movie of his own.
Like many of Wiseman’s films, In Jackson Heights gets a bit overwhelming—he’s been breaking the three-hour mark regularly of late (this one runs 190 minutes), and some of the material he includes seems more dutiful than compelling. A couple of lengthy personal histories told at what appears to be some sort of community center for undocumented immigrants, in particular, flirt with tedium. But the sheer variety of humanity that Wiseman documents keeps the film lively, and he finds plenty of terrific subjects, from a group of people studying for their citizenship exam (who are asked why they want to be U.S. citizens, then told they’ve given the wrong answer, even when they say things like “freedom of speech”) to an impossibly patient young woman working in Dromm’s office, fielding a call from an irate constituent. (“That would actually be a violation of federal law, ma’am,” she says wearily at one point.) Rarely has the concept of the American melting pot been so exhaustively explored on screen. We are the world, indeed.